We’re all the 1%, but we’re no Scott Bakula

Did anyone ever notice that Sam Beckett avoiding leaping into African people?

Writing in Foreign Policy, Charles Kenny points out that, when you consider the global income distribution, middle-class Americans are actually part of the global 1%.

So by global standards, America’s middle class is also really, really rich. To make it into the richest 1 percent globally, all you need is an income of around $34,000, according to World Bank economist Branko Milanovic. The average family in the United States has more than three times the income of those living in poverty in America, and nearly 50 times that of the world’s poorest. Many of America’s 99 percenters, and the West’s, are really 1 percenters on a global level.

His point is sound – it’s one that has been made repeatedly by development gurus in response to the Occupy Wall Street protests. He goes on to make the case that we not only need more redistribution from the middle-class within countries, but across them as well. I’m sympathetic to this argument – `local’ inequality surely pales in comparison to the injustice of global inequality, the latter being associated with millions of people still stuck in absolute poverty.

Yet it’s clear from his writing in general that, when considering public policy, Kenny gives the welfare of people within and outside of the US equal weight. This is typical of those involved in international development – we wouldn’t be in this field if we cared only for our own (although maybe that statement is a little self-serving).

These preferences are consistent with John Rawls’s veil of ignorance (discussed earlier here), the argument that policy should be set before we know what position in society we will assume, a bit like Scott Bakula/Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap. For example, we might feel differently about US immigration policy if we thought there was a chance we might be born in Haiti. Kenny touches upon this briefly while discussing Herbert Simon:

Nor did the Western 99 percent “earn” most of their wealth, any more than the top 1 percent “earned” theirs. It’s the luck of where you’re born, according to the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon, who estimated that the benefits of living in a well-functioning economy probably account for 90 percent of individual income.

While I completely agree with this line of thinking – welfare weights shouldn’t be nation-specific, I think it’s a problematic way to convince others to embrace policies which are already unpopular, like taxing the middle class or easing restrictions on immigration.

Why? I think that most people just don’t feel the same way:  average levels of altruism for foreigners are certain to be lower than for other citizens, so we should be wary of making arguments which are too dependent on non-discrimination. People still see citizenship as part of a social contract – we’re all in this boat together, even if we were randomly assigned to it. Those that ended up in leaky boats are not our immediate concern (again, not the way I feel).

There are no simple solutions to the challenge of getting people to broaden their concept of the `boat’ to include other nationals, although one could argue that the international Occupy protests, for all their faults, have actually helped in this regard.

7 thoughts on “We’re all the 1%, but we’re no Scott Bakula

  1. Jamie Pett

    February 28, 2012 at 8:00pm

    The reference to Rawls is interesting because of how his thought developed after “A Theory of Justice”. While he advocates the use of the veil of ignorance for individuals within a state to decide on how the society should be structured, in “The Law of Peoples” (1999) he says that global justice should be settled with a second veil of ignorance for representatives of each state but doesn’t come up with such egalitarian/redistributive principles. Instead, alongside seven other principles, states (or “peoples” in his terms) only have a “duty of assistance” to those peoples who are in such dire straits that they can’t deal with it themselves. This is closer to most peoples’ intuition.

    For an interpretation of Rawls closer to what you suggest, have a look at Thomas Pogge who goes much more into global redistribution.

  2. Charles Kenny

    February 29, 2012 at 2:50pm

    Matt– thanks for this!

    First I should note there was an error (now corrected) in the piece that you kindly quote. 27 million Americans are in the top 1% globally and nearly all are in the top 10%, but the original version of the piece (as you quote above) said “most are in the top 1%” –that’s wrong (indeed statistically impossible) –apologies for that.

    Meanwhile, I agree with your point. I guess I’d hope to nudge the balance a little by writing about the rest of the world so that the relative weights of fellow citizens and foreigners in the calculations of rich world citizens get a little closer…

  3. Matt

    February 29, 2012 at 3:14pm

    Hey Charles,

    Thanks for pointing out the mistake – it’s now corrected on the quote as well.

    Good point – writing about this stuff should help, but sometimes I worry we don’t spend enough time explicitly selling the weights themselves.

  4. Matt

    February 29, 2012 at 3:15pm

    Hi Jamie,

    Thanks for the pointer – to be honest I hadn’t read enough of Rawls to make the distinction you’ve brought up, which is an important one.

  5. Chris P

    March 1, 2012 at 12:23am


    Obviously hard to disagree with your point, but I agree with Charles that his point is very worth making. It is very very bad (IMO) that the liberals of the West feel that they can satiate their sense of justice were only there a public option or a 5% higher corporate tax rate, while not even having global wrongs (immigration is best example) on their agenda. The idea that this global equivalency will fall on deaf ears in no way negates it, and that objection to Charles’ point has unfortunate echoes of arguments against abolitionist protestations.

  6. Chris P

    March 1, 2012 at 12:27am

    Also agreed that Rawls was a nationalist liberal, which perhaps we could call liberal tribalism.

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